Companies & Industries

The Top 10 Green Business Stories of 2010


A doomed climate bill, electric vehicles, supply chain pressure—consultant Andrew Winston provides a round-up of the hottest environmental topics

Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 20, 2010 1:59 PM

Here's my attempt to capture what I see as the most important stories affecting the greening of business in 2010. To keep this to almost blog length, it's going to be quick, so see the links for more on these stories.

The first five are macro-level issues that affect the context for business:

1. The climate bill dies in the U.S. Senate.

Any hope for a national approach to tackling the largest challenge facing humanity petered out pathetically this year (see the complete, sad tale in a Pulitzer-worthy New Yorker article). Unfortunately for every other country, this is a global story. When the U.S. can't get its act together, the world can't create global policies, and thus the Cancun meeting last week resulted in some nice agreements to raise funds for adaptation—arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, anyone?—but no binding targets on carbon.

2. Nature strikes back/Climate change is real.

Ironically, given the rising debate in the U.S. on the science, the world got hotter, a lot hotter, this decade and this year. Russia saw its worst drought in 1,000 years (video), and Pakistan was overcome by flooding (video). Scientists will always give the caveat that you cannot blame climate change for any single weather event, but let's get real—this is what devastating climate change looks like on the ground. These weather events also directly affect resource availability, bringing me to my next point...

3. Resources get very tight.

The drought in Russia destroyed 40% of its wheat crop, so Putin pulled wheat—1/6 of the global trade in the crop—off the global market, driving up wheat prices. The floods in Pakistan helped double the price of cotton. And I could write a book on the topic of rare earth metals, those precious elements that make nearly every green technology possible and go into every iPhone. China mines 95% of these metals, and it needs them all now, making the U.S. "vulnerable to rare earth shortages." We're also vulnerable on fossil fuels. We learned from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico that readily accessible oil is a thing of the past—we don't dig one mile under the ocean for the heck of it. So most natural resources are getting more scarce, from oil to metals to crops. Smart companies like Hitachi are trying to find solutions, such as its new plan to develop rare earth recycling technologies.

4. China, China, China.

Did I mention rare earth metals? Or the rise of the world's largest solar producer from a manufacturing base of nearly nothing a few years ago? Or how about China's unparalleled (and some would say illegal) support for its renewables companies, which has the World Trade Organization fretting about trade barriers? China is very serious about its green ambitions, with support from the very top, and the business community is taking note.

5. Renewables are for real and moving fast.

Ok, there's some good news. The market for renewables is growing fast. About 45% of Portugal's electricity comes from renewables, and this is up from 18% in just five years. Germany, not really the sunniest country in the world, added 1% of its electric needs in solar in 2010 alone (it took 10 years to get the first 1% online, and just 8 months for the second 1%). No wonder HSBC says the market for clean tech and climate change solutions will top $2.2 trillion by 2020.

Now for the company-level stories:

6. Supply chain pressure continues to rise (a.k.a., Wal-Mart doesn't slow down).

Even coming out of the recession, this was a big year for green supply chain announcements. In February, Wal-Mart said it would eliminate 20 million metric tons of GHG emissions from its supply chain. Then in October, the retail giant announced it would double the amount of locally-grown produce on its shelves (and former sustainability exec Matt Kistler indicated this year that products getting higher scores in its Sustainability Index would get more shelf space). We also saw big announcements from P&G and Kaiser Permanente on supplier scorecards, IBM greatly increasing its demands on suppliers, and Pepsi using detailed carbon lifecycle data to make suppliers rethink how they grow Tropicana oranges.

7. Zero is the new black.

Companies seem to be tripping over themselves on the path to "zero waste." GM announced that 62 of its plants now send zero waste to landfill, and UK retailer Marks & Spencer reached a 92% diversion rate on the way to its zero goals. And Sony one-upped everyone by setting a goal of zero environmental impact across its operations by 2050.

8. Big goals were back.

Recession-schmecession. Sony wasn't the only one setting aggressive targets. Panasonic said it wanted its GHG emissions to peak by 2018 and it would greatly increase sales of eco-products. Unilever has probably gone the furthest, announcing it would double sales by 2020, but halve total environmental impact (among other big goals). Unilever's leaders are serious about driving these plans into the operations of the whole company.

9. Electric vehicles storm the market.

The Nissan LEAF was just named 2011 European Car of the Year, and GE announced it would buy 25,000 electric cars. Since the auto industry is one of the biggest in the world, there will be ripples from this movement. Enough said.

10. Small guys can do it too.

It's easy to get caught up in the tales of giant companies. So one of my favorite stories of the year is a simple example of eco-efficiency and savings from 10-employee Bowman Design with just 2,000 square feet of office space in Southern California (where else?). See founder Tom Bowman's description of his company's path to a 65% reduction in GHG emissions and $9,000 savings annually (ok, I'll admit that I didn't mind that Tom name-checked my book Green to Gold in his article, but I don't know him).

11. (Bonus!) The Military gets serious about green.

Honorable mention to the government and military, which is technically not "green business". But they're not kidding around, from plans to greatly reduce reliance on oil and diesel in Army operations, to Navy sustainability plans and test flights of planes running on biofuels. Go military green!

Looking Forward to 2011

No list would be complete without utterly over-confident predictions of the future. It's obvious that the pressures/themes above will continue to get stronger in the coming year. In particular, and in addition...

Supply chain pressure will evolve and get more sophisticated (such as retailers who said in August they would not buy fuel from Canadian oil sands). This shift will be partly driven by...

A data explosion around green is brewing. Companies will know more than ever about their impacts up and down the value chain.

Water will become a very big topic for business (it began this year, but there will be some great stories in my 2011 wrap up a year from now). My first couple of blogs of the New Year will look at water strategy.

Biomimicry, the design principle that suggests looking to nature for great ideas, will gain currency.

Energy innovation will be the order of the day (e.g., the Paris metro station that captures body heat to warm a nearby building)

But here's my final, shocking prediction: climate change policy won't matter (much). Even though the failure of the bill was my #1 above, #2 through 10 tells me that for business, the logic of green does not depend on believing in climate change, or in having a law in place. The natural resource, supply chain, innovation, and profit drivers are just too strong.

Business will be getting a lot greener in every sense of the word, no matter what political battles are waging. We're going to stop debating climate in the business community and just focus on the larger case for prosperity, for companies and countries alike.

I'm sure I missed many, many great stories. Please share your favorites here, and have a merry green new year!


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